House Speaker John Boehner started his eulogy of U.S. Rep C.W. Bill Young with a joke.
The congressman, who died Friday at 82, "loved, in this order, God, his family, his country, and the House Appropriations Committee."
Then the speaker addressed Young's widow, Beverly, and the 1,000 or so people in the seats at First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks — and choked up.
"Your loss is our loss," he said, wiping his face with a handkerchief. "What now? Who among us will carry on this man's work?"
Organizers were ready for a big event, with matching portraits and flower arrangements on each side of the stage. As guests streamed in, a montage of still photos showed the longest-serving Republican in Congress hobnobbing with U.S. presidents or sports stars, on military installations or with his wife and children.
According to Boehner's office, more than 30 House members, including the Republican and Democratic leaders, flew from Washington, D.C., to Florida for the funeral. Numerous Florida politicians from state and local governments also attended, including Gov. Rick Scott in the front row. A white-gloved military honor guard bore the congressman's flag-draped casket and set it before the stage.
One by one, speakers told stories about a man whose efforts led to advances in public health, marine research and national defense, plus a thousand quiet acts that helped someone get needed medical help when every other avenue had closed.
Gen. James F. Amos, the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, related the plight of a Marine whose daughter had a congenital heart defect. The girl needed surgery to save her life, but red tape and bureaucracy were getting in the way.
"You can imagine the weight of hopelessness her parents felt grinding down on their souls," Amos said.
Somehow, Young learned of the girl's trouble.
"Before the sunset of that day," Amos said, "her procedure was approved and she was fast-tracked for her heart surgery. Thanks to chairman Bill Young, today she is a healthy little girl attending an elementary school."
Those kinds of deeds "became so common they were routine," Amos said.
More than one speaker brought up Young's humble beginnings in a coal-mining Pennsylvania town, growing up in a rickety shack that washed away in a flood. His father was a violent alcoholic. Young's mother later moved Young and his brother to Florida for a fresh start.
"We remember Bill for his humility that was so very genuine; for the wisdom he possessed and the common sense he exercised; for the legislative skill he displayed and the life of integrity that he lived," said U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer D-Md. In an unusual step, Hoyer, the second-ranking Democrat in the House, thanked Pinellas voters for electing Young, a Republican, repeatedly since 1970.
"All of us owe the citizens of Pinellas County a debt of gratitude for sending Bill Young to serve with us and for us," Hoyer said.
The Rev. Charlie Martin, a longtime former pastor at First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks, revealed that despite his good works, Young may have carried an emotional weight. In a spiritual conversation, Martin said, Young said he had an intimate belief in Jesus.
According to Martin, Young then said, "But I've got a problem. And my problem is that I never feel like I have done enough."
Yet praise has cascaded down since Young announced his retirement earlier this month. His funeral included a letter from President George W. Bush and another message, delivered by Hoyer, from former Rep. Norm Dicks D-Wash., who could not attend the funeral because of medical reasons.
Of Young, who spent nine years in the Army National Guard and another six as an Army reservist, Dicks wrote, "Chairman Young did more for the men and women of the armed forces than anyone in Congress."
Another frequent theme touched on by most speakers was Young's attachment to his family. In spirit, that group now includes Marine Lance Cpl. Josh Callihan, who credits Bill and Beverly Young with helping him recover from a spinal injury after he was shot during a training exercise. Callihan, who spoke along with Rob, Billy and Patrick Young, sons of the congressman, now refers to Young and Beverly as his father and mother.
Rob Young, whom Young adopted at age 4, said the congressman taught him the art of listening. "He said that even when somebody is wrong, you should at least hear their point of view."
Rob Young said he now applies those principles daily as a clinical psychologist who does a lot of marriage counseling. Before he left the stage, Rob Young reminded the crowd that Young also had three children from his first marriage. Though he said he only remembered their first names, they are Terry Young, Pamela Ernest and Kimber Butts.
Young, who had suffered chronic pain, died Friday in Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., after refusing another surgery several days earlier.
Former aide and attorney David Jolly said he was present last week when former President George W. Bush called Young in the hospital — believed to be the last time Young spoke on the phone.
"In a moment that I will never forget," Jolly said, "the congressman concluded that phone call by very graciously and very sweetly saying, 'Mr. President, we're going to be gone. But hopefully they won't forget us too soon.'"
At the Bay Pines National Cemetery, not far from Bill Young Boulevard, Young was laid to rest with full military honors — three rounds of shots cracking from seven Army riflemen, a lone bugler blowing the plaintive notes of taps, a fly-over of military helicopters, and servicemen from all five branches marching in precise lockstep as they carried his casket to his grave.
Young was buried next to his mother, Wilma, a Veterans Administration employee who died in 2005.
After the casket had been lowered into the grave and the crowd had thinned out, one special mourner showed up: Vietnam veteran Ray Smith, 65, whose son, Sean Patrick Smith, was one of four Americans killed during last year's attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, Libya. Smith, accompanied by his landlord, had requested a few minutes to chat with Mrs. Young, and she climbed back out of the Moss-Feaster limousine to hug them both.
"I just wanted to tell her how much I love her and how much I loved Bill," Smith said afterward. "They're my family."
Times staff writers Adam C. Smith, Craig Pittman and Alex Leary contributed to this report.